Beyond The Obvious: Edward Weston

“I see no reason for recording the obvious.” – Edward Weston

Most photographers are lucky to create one iconic image in their careers. Edward Weston made dozens and also helped to define a new genre of fine art photography. One of the founders of Group f/64, which had both Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham as members, Weston has inspired legions of photographers and photography lovers alike to never look at bell peppers in quite the same way again. Through Weston’s lens, everyday, inanimate objects became sensual works of art. The curve of a leaf of cabbage, the swirl of a nautilus shell, or even a simple toadstool, were transformed into something entirely new and beautiful.

Called by many “the quintessential American photographer of his time”, Weston was part of the movement that changed how we see photography today. Given a camera in 1902, at the age of 16 by his father, he started shooting during his spare time. Within a few years he began working as a door-to-door portrait photographer. He realized shortly, however, that in order to have credibility as a photographer, he needed an education so he attended the Illinois School of Photography. He completed the nine-month course in a quick six months, but refused to pay for the remaining three that the school required. The school didn’t agree with Weston’s reasoning and withheld his diploma. Angry and frustrated, he packed up and moved to California and got a job working at a photography studio.

His style in the early days was the typical Pictorial style of the period, which was characterized by a soft-focus, very similar to painting. Photographers such as Julia Margaret-Cameron and Alfred Stieglitz had been shooting that way for years. They were using the camera as a tool rather than a machine, turning it into a sort-of paintbrush, and using different techniques in the darkroom to manipulate the images; to elevate them as art pieces, rather than a just a mere record of a moment. Weston loved that particular style and mastered it so well that he won several awards and wrote articles for magazines such as American Photography. He worked for several years shooting portraits in his studio, and, although he was a great success, as time went on, he grew more and more dissatisfied with his work.

This dissatisfaction is common among artists; we struggle with losing our original creativity or we end up feeling like we have nothing new to say. Sometimes it just takes time. We tend to expect inspiration to come sooner rather than later, thinking if we just keep doing the work, the epiphany will happen and we will create great things. Weston struggled with this for years. He knew he wasn’t creating the type of work he wanted to, but didn’t know how to change it. Then, in 1915, Weston actually did have an epiphany while viewing an exhibit of modern art at the San Francisco World’s Fair. The work spoke to him and inspired him to experiment with new ways of shooting. However, it wasn’t until seven years later, in 1922, when the style he was looking for finally clicked for him. He was visiting his sister in Middletown, Ohio and happened to take five or six images at the Armco steel mill. These photographs were clean, sharp, and, what he called, “straight” images. This discovery completely changed what he had been doing. Almost overnight, his photographs became this new stark reality, instead of the out-of-focus, painterly images. “When subject matter is forced to fit into preconceived patterns, there can be no freshness of vision.” Weston said, “Following rules of composition can only lead to a tedious repetition of pictorial cliches.” He had found a way to break out of the box he had put around himself. He had tremendous patience with this new work and didn’t give up. What he found was a new way of thinking, a deeper side to himself and his art that he hadn’t even realized was there.

Weston did not arrive at this new way of shooting all on his own, but surrounded himself with people who inspired him (mostly women). One of these women was Margaret Mather, a fellow photographer and artist, and the only one Weston ever shared credit with. They had what could be called an intense relationship. She strongly influenced his style and continued to push him to see in new ways. Weston called her “the first important person in my life”. While still with Mather, Weston began a long-lasting affair with Tina Modotti, a former film star and Weston’s first nude model. Like Mather, Modotti also encouraged Weston in this new, modern artistic direction. The two moved to Mexico to start a studio and it was through her that Weston became well-known in the Mexican art world. It was also through her influence that he began shooting common, ordinary objects, objects that most would find mundane. “Anything that excites me for any reason, I will photograph;” Weston said, “Not searching for unusual subject matter, but making the commonplace unusual.” In 1930, another lover, Sonya Noskowiak, brought him some green peppers to photograph, which he transformed into beautiful, curved sculptures that no one had ever seen in that way before. In front of Weston’s lens, simple vegetables became sensual objects and a new form of fine art.

When Weston returned from Mexico, he settled in Northern California. It was here that Weston; along with Willard Van Dyke, a former apprentice; Ansel Adams and Imogen Cunningham, organized the well-known Group f/64, which sought to elevate photography to a new level of fine art via a common aesthetic. Their purpose was to develop photography as an art form independent of any other medium. To solely show work that used only the camera and was not derivative of any other type of work or medium. They emphasized “pure” photography with sharp images and maximum depth-of-field (hence the name). This idea of purity would become the basis of Weston’s work for the rest of his life. His images were started and finished in the camera. “I start with no preconceived idea – discovery excites me to focus – then rediscovery through the lens – final form of presentation seen on ground glass,” he said, “The finished print pre-visioned completely in every detail of texture, movement, proportion, before exposure – the shutter’s release automatically and finally fixes my conception, allowing no after manipulation – the ultimate end, the print, is but a duplication of all that I saw and felt through my camera.”

The last two decades of Weston’s career saw him create some of the best work he had ever done. He had moved to Carmel and made frequent trips to Point Lobos and areas surrounding Big Sur, where he started shooting landscapes, windblown trees and craggy rock formations. Sadly, in 1946, Weston was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and, just two years later, his deteriorating health forced him to stop shooting altogether. Despite no longer being able to shoot, Weston spent the remainder of his life curating and overseeing the printing of his incredible body of work by his sons Cole and Brett. When you look at his images in their entirety, as a complete body of work, you can see the progression of a career over the years. From his first portrait work, to the later, unearthly images of Northern California coastlines, he continued to grow and push himself as an artist until the day he could no longer shoot. “My true program is summed up in one word: life,” he said, “I expect to photograph anything suggested by that word which appeals to me.”

Links

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Edward Weston: The Flame of Recognition

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